Thursday, August 21, 2008

What is the role of protest?

By: Harry Waisbren

I just received the following email from Ben Ratliffe on the Madison Winter Soldier google group that discusses a topic I consider with the upmost seriousness:

Dear all,

At the last Winter Soldier meeting, the outreach/media working group got into a brief discussion about the efficacy of antiwar protests and marches. There is, indeed, a growing sentiment out there, (and perhaps even among us), and marching, chanting, carrying signs, and so forth has become futile in the face of the Bush admin's intransigence.

It seems this would be something we should talk about some more, in case there are those among us with doubts, as we work toward building the Winter Soldier event, participate in the RNC protests, and whatever we come up with next.

Last year, an article, linked here, came out in the pages of the Socialist Worker called, "Does it Matter if We Protest?" It has was a big help for those of us trying to answer that question among ourselves and our allies in the movement--i.e. if not directly shutting down the "war machine", what DOES protest accomplish? Hope you find it as helpful.

As always, if anyone has anything to add or detract, please pass it on. In a democratic movement, we need all ideas on the table.

Til we meet again,

This is an issue that I think we should all take seriously as grassroots activists across the country and world decipher the best ways to achieve our goals. I certainly agree with the premise of this article that protest plays an integral role, but the question I have is how do we ensure that when we do protest it is as effective as possible? Our situation dictates that we must learn how to counter the ways in which protest has been weakened to ensure that our activism makes the impact it can and should. Furthermore, when a protest is decided to be unapplicable, what other strategies should be employed?

Here's another good link that has colored my thinking on this topic:
In a land crawling with armed – and armored – SWAT teams, with operatives from innumerable federal agencies packing heat and happy to use it, a land where more than 2 million people languish in prison (many of them captives of an endless "war on drugs" that has done nothing to curb substance abuse but has greatly augmented the power of the state and the criminal gangs whose laundered money enriches Establishment elites), a land where almost every transaction is wired up to some national grid, where national ID cards are now being imposed – a land where you literally cannot exist without placing your liberty, your privacy, your very life at the mercy of a government apparatus besotted with violence, coercion and intrusion, there is no place left for the kind of action that Thoreau advocated. His way – and that of Gandhi and King, who took so much from him – envisions a state opponent which one could hope to shame into honorable action by the superior moral force of principled civil disobedience. But the very hallmark of the present regime is its shamelessness, its utter lack of any sense of honor or principle, its bestial addiction to raw power.

[emphasis added]

In a land where our political and media elite brush off the overwhelming views of the mainstream without a hint of shame, how do we push them to take the more drastic efforts of a an easily castigated few as seriously?

I do not believe we will achieve progress until this dynamic changes, until liberal and left-wing views can no longer be easily disregarded as essentially "hippie nonsense". This is one reason why I place such a premium on activists reporting on their own activism and issues themselves, as I believe it to be the only way for our arguments to ever be analyzed with even a hint of credence.


Forward Our Motto said...

If I may, why a long term focus on protesting? Doesn't that assume that liberals and left-wing types will be always be out of power marginalized?

Do you think it's worthwhile to focus on gaining political power? I certainly think so. The system could be reformed (and should be!), but it's not a lost cause even as it stands now. If you start at the city council and county board levels, it's really not so hopeless.

Harry Waisbren said...

I certainly think it is worthwhile to focus on gaining political power, but I disagree that believing protest will be necessary (to whatever extent) long term is a suggestion that liberals will not be able to do this.

This is because I believe that our current situation goes far past liberal or conservative. Our political and media establishment is at a crossroads between support of the aristocracy and the rest of us, and quite regrettably they will not give the people voice unless we find creative ways to force ourselves into the public sphere.

Sometimes this will require being heard by yelling, but I think we are in agreement that protest is often overutilized and that there is a great potential for other creative ways for progressives to be heard.